One of the least surprising things about mainstream Hollywood is its horror and disdain towards queer people. We’ve made incredible leaps forward in terms of how LGBTQ+ stories are portrayed for wide audiences, with layered representations of queerness of all kinds more plentiful than ever. That doesn’t mean the industry has wholly embraced the community or isn’t prone to startling displays of bigotry. Amid the Pride Month Twitter posts and shoddy merchandise, it’s evident that there’s still a long way to go before we achieve true liberation. Look no further than the recent decision by the Motion Picture Association (MPA) to slap the acclaimed romantic drama Passages with an NC-17 rating.
Passages, directed by Ira Sachs, tells the story of an affair between a tempestuous filmmaker (played by Franz Rogowski) and a teacher (Adèle Exarchopoulos), despite the former being married to a male artist (Ben Whishaw). Sachs and the film’s distributor MUBI condemned the MPA’s decision. In a statement, MUBI said that the “NC-17 rating suggests the film’s depiction of sex is explicit or gratuitous, which it is not, and that mainstream audiences will be offended by this portrayal, which we believe is also false.” MUBI will release the film unrated.
Sachs directly called out the MPA’s homophobia, saying, “We’re talking about a select group of people who have a certain bent, which seems anti-gay, anti-progress, anti-sex—a lot of things which I’m not.” It’s a reminder of how deeply sex of any kind, but especially that which doesn’t fit into the stifling mold of cishet people fumbling under the covers, remains curiously stigmatized by the mainstream entertainment industry. In many ways, we’re still stuck several decades in the past, with remnants of the Hays Code embedded in the modern discourse.
The Hays Code was Hollywood’s desperate attempt to rehabilitate its increasingly decadent image in the face of powerful protests from the Catholic League and “concerned” parent groups. Religious groups saw film as a tool of evil designed to spread amoral ideas (an idea heavily rooted in the fact that many of the industry’s leaders were Jewish). Portrayals were seen as explicit endorsements, and such things were to be stamped out. The Code infamously limited portrayals of gender, sexuality, race, and law and order. “Good” must win the day over “evil,” even if the latter’s standards included things as benign as women with autonomy, gentle mockery of the clergy, or interracial romance. Queerness was not explicitly condemned, but it didn’t need to be. The Catholic scorn that repeatedly demanded genteel portrayals of the sanctity of marriage between man and woman spoke loudly enough of their views on the subject. They were part of the ban on “sex perversion.”
The American movie world quickly fell into line. Queerphobia is baked into the roots of Hollywood, but it’s important to note the distinction between the restrictive model of the mainstream American corporate interests and the art form of cinema itself. Remember, one of the very first pieces of film we have is of two men cozily dancing with one another. Queerness has been present on the big screen for decades, albeit in covert forms. The Celluloid Closet documented the ways that LGBTQ+ presences are embedded in film history, from Peter Lorre’s shady character in The Maltese Falcon to Katharine Hepburn in boy drag in Sylvia Scarlett to the scorching sexual angst of Ben-Hur. The queer undertones of characters like Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca were always there for people who knew where to look. Stories of explicit queerness found ways around the Code, such as The Children’s Hour, a drama about the fallout of an accusation of a lesbian romance between two teachers at a girls’ school. Happy endings for such stories were out of the question and nobody ever says the word “gay” in that film, but their presence in the cultural landscape mattered greatly.
Of course, queerness was never absent from film, and you only have to look outside of America to see radical and empathetic narratives that place our very existence front and center. Basil Deardon’s Victim bravely named homosexuality and sympathetically portrayed the pain of living under bigoted laws at a time when it was still illegal in Britain (the Code-era production board, predictably, denied it their seal of approval at first, before relenting a year after its initial release). The Japanese art film Funeral Parade of Roses put trans women front and center in 1969, its release happening half a world away from the Stonewall riots. The German romantic drama Mädchen in Uniform was so beloved for its heartfelt portrayal of the troubled passion between a student and her teacher that Eleanor Roosevelt preached its beauty even as the Code banned it from release. And this doesn’t even get into the world of underground American cinema, from John Waters to Kenneth Anger to documentaries like The Queen and Portrait of Jason.
As the Hays Code fell out of fashion, it was replaced with the Motion Picture Association of America (the MPAA), which sought to keep up with the changing times of New Hollywood and liberalizing attitudes across the country. It didn’t work out like that, and many of the Code’s worst demands melded with a corporate-driven hypocrisy that strengthened the idea of sexuality of any kind as taboo. The MPAA has long faced criticism that it rates profanity and sex far more harshly than violence. You can mow down dozens of goons with a machine gun and get a PG-13 rating as long as you don’t show any blood, but portray two lovers (even hetero ones) doing it with some evident hip thrusting and the chances are you’ll get, if you’re lucky, an R. The system is also maddeningly inconsistent in terms of what movie gets which rating and why, with major studio films notoriously more likely to get the softer rating than independent cinema. Filmmakers like Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame noted how much easier it was for them to get an R rating with their Paramount movies than their indie efforts. Given how queer storytelling remains, for the most part, on the margins of the mainstream, it’s no surprise that the ratings issued effects LGBTQ+ narratives so heavily.
Queerness of all kinds remains highly limited by the MPAA. As noted by the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, LGBTQ+ depictions of eroticism, regardless of how explicit they are, seem more likely to get the NC-17 rating, all but a death knell for major theatrical distribution, over cishet versions. NC-17 was supposed to be the more mainstream alternative to the X rating, which had become too heavily associated with porn. The hope was that this new rating, meaning nobody under 17 could see it in theaters, would open up new opportunities for adult-driven storytelling within populist sectors. Yet it quickly became as taboo to theatrical distributors and promoters as the X, with studios going out of their way to avoid an NC-17 for their films.
The very first NC-17 film, Henry and June, is undoubtedly erotic, but its lesbian sex scenes are not especially graphic despite being the reason the movie received such a rating. Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce described how the ratings board asked her to cut a scene where a trans man wipes away a woman’s cum from his top lip after going down on her in order to get the R rating. This scene of pure pleasure was deemed as violently offensive as a rape scene within the same film (and rape is horribly common in R-rated movies, often for cheap shock, as seen in upsetting dreck like the remake of The Hills Have Eyes 2). Jamie Babbitt was asked to cut an over-the-clothes scene of masturbation from But I’m a Cheerleader to forego an NC-17 rating, but Jason Biggs could fuck a dessert in American Pie and nobody doubted its R rating.
The history of the MPA(A) is littered with stories like this, and it continues to this day. In 2014, they faced pushback for handing the R rating to the gentle romantic drama Love is Strange (directed by Passages’ own Ira Sachs) which features no sex between its two male leads, but was apparently too adult for young eyes. That same year, they gave the British drama Pride, about queer activists who supported striking miners in the 1980s, an R rating. Their excuse was its use of profanity, but activists couldn’t help but see parallels to Hollywood’s past.
The Hays Code wasn’t just about censorship and the limiting of creative behavior. It was an implicit endorsement of wider socio-political conservatism as not only righteous but “normal.” To deviate even slightly from this stifling and forced norm demanded intense punishment. It’s why so many delicious femme fatales had to die at the end of the movie. The message is clear: What happens on-screen should be reflected off it, and what is absent from our storytelling should be absent from our reality. If you cannot be what you cannot see, then the decades’ long attempts to erase queerness from mainstream American cinema was a blatant attempt to stifle LGBTQ+ ideas and expression. Television has, mercifully, offered a greater expanse for queer representation, from groundbreaking series like Queer as Folk and The L Word, to modern stories reinserting LGBTQ+ presences into history like Our Flag Means Death and Interview with the Vampire. There are always other options, but that doesn’t negate the power of the cinema and the stranglehold that queerphobic ideas have over it to this day.
To remove not just queerness but queer eroticism from the screen is a pointed attack that has only grown in power over the past few years. We’re in the midst of a horrifying uprising in homophobia, transphobia and anti-queer legislative rule that has become commonplace to the point of terror. Far-right protestors, Republican politicians and full-time transphobes on social media have giddily latched onto the same rhetoric that stifled LGBTQ+ progress for decades: We’re unnatural, we’re a threat to children, we’re part of nefarious underground schemes, and we’re warping the minds of good God-fearing folks. A good way to smother queer voices is to declare their mere presence in art as wrong, as part of an evil agenda, as “woke nonsense.” It makes everything even remotely connected to LGBTQ+ joy not merely toxic but justifiably worth exterminating, from trans women drinking beer to drag artists singing for their brunch. The MPA is a tool of this agenda, whether they openly embrace it or not, and artists must be willing to circumnavigate their hypocrisies to survive. Just as they didn’t go extinct during the height of the Hays Code, LGBTQ+ people and stories aren’t going anywhere today, because stories like Passages reflect something palpably real about our lives. They deserve to be able to tell that tale without faux concern over its suitability for people who never had any interest in it to begin with.
Kayleigh Donaldson is a critic and pop culture writer for Pajiba.com. Her work can also be found on IGN, Slashfilm, Uproxx, Little White Lies, Vulture, Roger Ebert, and other publications. She lives in Dundee.